Insect protein team takes home grand prize at PSU environmental innovation contest.

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - These Voodoo Doughnuts are made from a special ingredient - flour made from dried crickets.  The crowd may have been won over by the Voodoo Doughnuts — the chocolate peanut Rice Krispie ones made with cricket flour and Bavarian cream.

Or the thrill of tasting whole insects, lightly seasoned — nutty, shrimpy, "kind of like roasted edamame," describes Yesenia Gallardo, a young Portland business owner who specializes in raising and processing crickets into protein powder.

But even without the tasting samples, the judging panel at Portland State University's fourth-annual Cleantech Challenge this month awarded Gallardo and her team partner the top prize for their work in developing GMO-free omega-rich oils and protein powders.

They beat nine other teams from Oregon colleges and universities to win $10,000 to further their sustainable innovations.

"Some people are still averse to it, but most are game, excited to try it," Gallardo says of the growing interest in insect-based protein products — everything from flours and oils to shakes, protein bars, brownies and yes, doughnuts.

Why insects?

"Insects are super sustainable," says Gallardo, 30, who grew up in Salem and graduated from Willamette University, then Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"They're really efficient little critters," she continues. "As the world population grows and grows we're going to need additional sources of protein that's not destructive to the land and water."

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Yesenia Gallardo and Charles Wilson, recent college graduates who formed Ento Foods Group, won the $10,000 grand prize at PSUs annual Cleantech Challenge for their insect-based protein innovations.Thirty percent of the world's land is devoted to raising animals for meat, Gallardo notes.

Edible insects can be raised vertically, reducing their impact on the land, as well as feed and water requirements.

Insects are personal to Gallardo. Each summer she visits her grandparents in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she's grown up eating chapulines, the grasshoppers famous in the region’s cuisine.

When she returned from a recent trip to visit her mother, Gallardo launched her Portland company, Poda Foods, which raises and processes crickets into protein powder that's then distributed to food entrepreneurs and restaurants.

At Yale, Gallardo met a fellow insect geek, Charles Wilson, a University of Oregon graduate who owned a business making cricket flour.

They decided to combine their passions and work on a project for the Cleantech Challenge that addressed a critical gap in the industry.

"In the U.S., the edible insect industry is growing really fast," Gallardo says. "A lot of people see the low barrier to entry, want to farm crickets, make new protein shakes. But there's not anybody aggregating that supply or process. There needs to be some kind of differentiation along the supply chain to make those transactions easier," so both farmers and entrepreneurs can handle quality products on a large scale.

Their team, which they called Ento Foods Group, researched the potential for a processing facility.

With help from the family-run Seed Oil Co. in Grants Pass, they developed a process to extract oil from insects that makes for a better powder — less gritty and more shelf-stable.

"The kids (in that family) took us to the factory and pressed the insects for us," Gallardo says. "(The process) is really new, and I think we're the first company to create an oil."

Other finalists in the Sept. 8 Cleantech Challenge included developers of a waterproofing spray made from kale; a highly conductive metal gel; and a small home design/construction process that reuses materials.

Each of the 10 semifinalist teams had received $2,500 to build their prototypes over the summer, making the total prize pool $50,000.

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - PSU graduate students Mark Ronay and Bahar Ajdari (and their startup, Liquid Wire) took home the second-place prize of $5,000 at the Cleantech Challenge. Their innovation was a flexible, highly conductive printable fluid to power electronic devices in soft robotics and wearable products. Many teams will continue with their innovations even though the contest is done.

Gallardo says she and Wilson will work next to figure out how to use their prize money to further their concept.

While some might scoff at the idea of insect-based proteins, the Ento Foods team has a big vision that some people are just starting to see.

It's to include insect protein in animal feed and fish feed, Gallardo says, "to start to break these cycles where the real energy goes. I think that's where we'll see the real environmental gain."

Of course, she hopes people will be more comfortable eating insect protein products as well, as prices will come down with better processing systems in place.

"That's why we keep doing it," she says. "I do think we're at the start of this insect revolution."

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